Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution

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Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution


Georgakas, D., & Surkin, M. (2012). Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution. Haymarket Books.

Intellectual & Historical Context

Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin was first published in 1975 by St. Martin’s Press, and its current edition was published in 2012 by Haymarket Books. The authors, Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, provide an in-depth historical analysis of the radical labor movements within Detroit, focusing significantly on the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and their efforts to address racial and economic injustices within the auto industry.

This book situates itself within the broader discourse on labor rights, racial justice, and revolutionary activism, chronicling the development and activities of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Detroit. At a time when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum nationally, Detroit’s industrial labor scene became a focal point for a radical movement that sought to combine racial justice with economic empowerment against the backdrop of systemic inequalities perpetuated by both corporate and union structures. The League exemplified a unique blend of Marxism, Black Power, and worker’s rights advocacy, aiming to radically transform labor relations in one of America’s largest industrial cities.

Thesis Statement

Georgakas and Surkin argue that the revolutionary activities of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers represented a significant, though often overlooked, chapter in the history of civil and labor rights in America. By documenting the League’s efforts to combat systemic racism and economic exploitation within Detroit’s auto industry, the authors highlight the potential for radical, grassroots movements to effect substantial social change.

Key Concepts

  1. Revolutionary Unionism: The League’s approach combined traditional union activism with radical racial and economic justice ideologies, challenging both the auto industry’s practices and mainstream union policies that failed to address the needs of Black workers.
  2. Intersection of Race and Class: The authors explore how the League’s activism was informed by the interconnected nature of racial discrimination and economic exploitation, illustrating the complexity of identity and class struggle within the labor movement.
  3. Urban Revolution: The narrative positions Detroit not just as a center of industrial production but as a battleground for transformative social justice movements, reflecting broader tensions and potential for change in American cities during the 1960s and 1970s.
  4. Grassroots Organizing: The book details the strategies and challenges of building a movement from the ground up, emphasizing the importance of community engagement and solidarity.
  5. Legacy of Activism: The long-term impact of the League’s efforts on subsequent labor and civil rights movements, and the ongoing relevance of their strategies and challenges.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1: Inner City Voice This chapter discusses the foundation of Inner City Voice, a newspaper started by radical African American workers in Detroit that aimed to give a voice to the city’s black community and labor issues. It served as a precursor to the formation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

Chapter 2: Our Thing Is DRUM Focuses on the creation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), a radical group that aimed to address racial injustices at the Dodge Main plant. This movement laid the groundwork for the broader League by highlighting the specific challenges faced by black workers in Detroit’s auto industry.

Chapter 3: We Will Take the Hard Line Describes the ideological and tactical shifts within the League, emphasizing a more militant stance in dealing with labor and racial issues. This chapter examines the confrontations between the League and both the auto industry and traditional union leadership, which were often resistant to radical change.

Chapter 4: The League of Revolutionary Black Workers This chapter details the official formation of the League, outlining its organizational structure, goals, and the key figures involved. It highlights the League’s efforts to unify various minority worker movements under a single umbrella to strengthen their fight against systemic discrimination and exploitation.

Chapter 5: Niggermation at Eldon Examines specific events at the Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle Plant, where the term “niggermation” was coined to describe the racial segregation and discriminatory labor practices. This chapter highlights some of the most direct actions taken by the League to combat these practices.

Chapter 6: Finally Got the News Covers the production of the documentary film Finally Got the News, which was used by the League to spread their message and gain broader support. The film is shown to play a crucial role in publicizing the conditions and the radical labor struggle happening in Detroit.

Chapter 7: Black Workers Congress Explores the expansion of the movement beyond Detroit with the formation of the Black Workers Congress, which aimed to address black workers’ issues nationwide. This chapter discusses the challenges and successes of nationalizing their revolutionary labor movement.

Chapter 8: Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets: STRESS Analyzes the League’s involvement in community issues, specifically their opposition to the Detroit Police Department’s STRESS (Stop The Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) initiative, which they viewed as racially motivated police violence.

Chapter 9: Mr. Justin Ravitz, Marxist Judge of Recorder’s Court Focuses on Justin Ravitz, a sympathetic figure in the legal system who shared ideological similarities with the League. This chapter discusses how having allies in various positions of power could impact the movement.

Chapter 10: The 54-Hour Week Discusses the challenges faced by workers subjected to long hours under harsh conditions, and the League’s stance on advocating for better working conditions, including the fight to reduce the workweek.

Chapter 11: Thirty Years Later This chapter reflects on the events and impact of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers three decades after its peak activities. It assesses how the landscape of Detroit and the conditions within the auto industry have changed since then, discussing both advancements and ongoing challenges. The authors also consider the personal trajectories of key members of the League and how their lives and the city of Detroit have evolved over the years.

Chapter 12: The Legacy of DRUM: Four Histories The final chapter evaluates the enduring legacy of DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) by presenting four different perspectives or “histories” that illustrate the movement’s influence on various aspects of labor, racial politics, and activism. This chapter explores how DRUM’s radical approaches to unionism and racial justice have inspired subsequent generations of activists and movements within and beyond Detroit, highlighting the ongoing relevance of their strategies and ideals.

Key Quotes

  1. “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”
    This quote underscores the desperation and radical potential of those who are most marginalized within a society—specifically, black industrial workers in Detroit during this era. It encapsulates the driving force behind the radical actions of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
  2. “You don’t fight racism with racism, the best way to fight racism is with solidarity.”
    Highlighting a core principle of the League, this statement reflects their approach to combating systemic racism not through separatism but through united efforts that cross racial lines.
  3. “We are not going to let the oppressor tell us who our heroes should be.”
    Asserting the importance of autonomy in historical and cultural narratives, this quote captures the League’s endeavor to redefine heroism on their terms, celebrating figures who represent genuine resistance against oppression.

Significance & Impact

Detroit: I Do Mind Dying has made a significant contribution to the historiography of labor movements and racial politics in the United States. Its detailed account of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers provides a critical lens through which to view the intersections of race and class struggles during a pivotal era in American history.

The book is particularly notable for:

  • Highlighting Underrepresented Narratives: It brings attention to the radical elements of labor movements which are often overshadowed by more mainstream narratives.
  • Influencing Future Activism: The strategies and ideologies of the League have inspired subsequent generations of activists and organizers, particularly those working at the nexus of racial justice and labor rights.
  • Educational Impact: Used in academic settings, the book serves as an essential text for understanding radical social movements, offering insights into the dynamics of organizing in racially and economically stratified environments.

Critical Reflections

The work challenges readers to reconsider the conventional understandings of labor movements by integrating racial analysis and addressing the specific needs and leadership of African American workers. It also poses critical questions about the sustainability and evolution of radical movements, examining both the successes and the internal and external challenges that can lead to their decline.

In conclusion, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying stands as a seminal work in the study of radical labor movements, documenting an important but often neglected chapter of American social and labor history. The book’s detailed portrayal of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers offers valuable lessons on the complexities of organizing for systemic change in highly oppressive contexts. It remains a crucial resource for activists, scholars, and anyone interested in the deeper currents of American labor and racial history.

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